The spruce grouse is a medium size, short-necked, stocky and short-tailed grouse. Adults are 15 - 17 inches long, with the male being slightly larger than the female and more flamboyantly colored. Both sexes have brown or blackish tail feathers that are unbarred. Males are distinguished by the black neck and breast patch, which is bordered by white-tipped feathers. Most noticeable on the males, though is the bright red patch of bare skin directly above each eye. The females, on the other hand lack the bright red skin patch above the eye and are barred on the head and much of their under-parts with black, gray and white. The tail feathers of both sexes of the Franklin's grouse sub-species are squared off and tipped with white, while the Taiga sub-species has round-tipped tail feathers with a broad brownish band (Boag and Schroeder, 1992; Sibley, 2001).
Immature spruce grouse resemble the adults of their sex, except that their outer two primaries are pointed and marked with buff instead of the white as on the adults. Juveniles resemble adult females. The differences they present are the buffy markings on the tips of the upper wing coverts and on the primaries and secondaries. The tail feathers show dark brown, barred, speckled, and vermiculated with lighter markings. The sex of the juveniles, after 35-40 days, is determined in the same way as that of adults (Johnsgard, 1973; Boag and Schroeder, 1992).
The range of the spruce grouse extends from the southern portion of Alaska through much of the Canadian province of Yukon and into the Northwest Territories. Its range on the west half of the North America includes the northern portions of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, most of British Columbia, and the western most portion of Montana, the northern half of Idaho and small portions of northeast Oregon and northern Washington in the United States. The spruce grouses range on the east half of the continent runs through most of Manitoba, all of Ontario except between the Great Lakes of Huron, Erie, and Ontario. Most of Quebec is included in its range except the northern portion between Hudson Bay and Lingave Bay. They are also found in all of the provinces of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island and the northern sections of the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. (Boag and Schroeder, 1992; Johnsgard, 1973; Sibley, 2001)
In the east, spruce grouse inhabit dense spruce, fir, cedar, and tamarack swamps. They may also be found among hemlocks and other trees, but seldom out in the open. It has been noted that they may also inhabit growths of cedar, black spruce, and hackmatack with occasional wanderings into areas of young balsams, and red and white spruces 8 to 10 feet high. In the west, spruce grouse become less dependent on swamps and prefer the higher ground of boreal forests containing black spruce and jack pine. Even though the vegetation type differs through the spruce grouses' range, they prefer younger stands of trees which provide cover with their low branches most often hanging to the ground. Winter habitat throughout its range consists of forest with dense jack pine stands from which they feed (Johnsgard, 1973;Ellison, 1974; Herzog and Boag, 1978; Boag and Schroeder, 1992).
The spruce grouse are polygynous and males may mate with several females. Male spruce grouse advertise themselves to females with a variety of strutting and aerial displays. During these displays the male is facing the female giving her full "visual effect of the eye combs, fanned tail, and the contrasting breast coloration".
Precopulatory behavior of the male has him rushing the female several times until he is close to her. At this point he watches her for several seconds, squats to the ground with neck stretched and head parallel to the ground while the tail is vertical and spread and the wings slightly spread and lowered. There is only one record of actual copulatory behavior ever being observed. Harjhu (1971) noted that as the male approached the female, the male made a "challenge call" while he performed his tail flicking, neck snapping, and foot stomping. He then moved behind the female and mounted her.
The male spruce grouse does not participate in either nest defense or brood rearing. Hence, the female provides all parental care during nesting, hatching, fledging, and brood-rearing. Spruce grouse nests are in well concealed locations in brush or deep moss near spruce thickets or under low branches. Nearly all females attempt to nest. Average clutch sizes recorded have ranged from 4.9 eggs to 7.54 eggs. Occasionaly renesting may occur when the first nest is lost (Harjhu, 1971; Johnsgard, 1973; Ellison, 1974; Keppie, 1975; Boag and Schroeder, 1992; Whitcomb et al., 1996).
The nonchalant or unconcerned behavior of the spruce grouse towards humans has earned it the nickname "Fool Hen." On numerous occasions these grouse have been captured and upon release move only several feet from its capturers before it begins to forage for food. This is not the case when in the presence of other potential predators such as hawks and owls.
During the winter spruce grouse take advantage of the insulating capacity of snow by borrowing beneath the snows surface. It has been noted that they may spend as much as 22 hours a day in these snow roosts. These roosts may be either a single pocket or cotain both an entrance and exit several feet apart, with most located 8 to 10 feet out from a tree to allow for an unimpeded escape should the need arise.
Male spruce grouse establish and defend territories. These territories range in size from 10 to 15 acres, but not all are intense compact territory holders. Some may be more nomadic, wandering over several square miles of the habitat. These nomadic wanderings may bring them into the territories of other male spruce grouse, who are intent on defending their territory and will aggressively engage the wanderer in a fight. Most often these fights result in a feather lost and/or a deflated ego, but on rare occasions they may result in death.
The female spruce grouse is usually a very quiet bird unless alarmed. During the summer, fall, and winter the female makes very little vocal sounds, but as the breeding season approaches she becomes more vocal. During the breeding season females do become aggressive toward other females. It is believed that this is just showing an intolerance towards the other female and not that she is defending a territory (Johnsgard, 1973; Robinson, 1980; Boag and Schroeder, 1992).
A majority of the adult spruce grouses' diet is made up of needles from conifer trees. Such conifers include the jack pine, white and black spruce, larch, lodge-pole pine, and juniper. Fruits and leaves of huckleberry, snowberry, white mandarin, blueberry, cranberry, and crowberry are also very important to the grouses' diet differing slightly with season and climate. In some areas tamarack is included in their diet. Spruce grouse chicks, under one week old, subsist on arthropods and after one week add huckleberries to their diet. The young do not begin to eat conifer needles until October, but by November the needles become the main stay of their diet (Johnsgard, 1973; Boag and Schroeder, 1992).
A suggested method of predator avoidance is the uniform dispersion of males and females over a limited block of habitat during the reproductive season. Also, spruce grouse perfer sparse stands of young trees that contain living branches that hang to the ground. These branches provide concealment from predators, but still allow adequate room for flight. If in a tree and the female spots a potential enemy, she will "utter a series of clucking sounds" (kruk, kruk, kruk), to warn others of their presence. There have been no reports of in-flight alarm calls (Johnsgard, 1973;Herzog and Boag, 1978; Boag and Schroeder, 1992).
The spruce grouse is considered a game bird and hunted as such throughout most of its range. Only six states and two provinces do not consider the spruce grouse a game bird. Individual states and provinces that do allow hunting enjoy profits from the sale of hunting licenses, firearms, ammunition, and other miscellaneous hunting gear (Robinson, 1980; Boag and Schroeder, 1992).
Even they are not in danger of extinction at this time, efforts to ensure that their habitat remains stable are ongoing. The southern portion of its range is in conflict with human economics such as the use of poisons and pesticides, woodlands turned into wastelands, and the invasions of homes, roadways, and recreational use. We do know that the spruce grouse can be raised under artifical conditions, but it can only be truly whole when it is part of the community that includes all other facets of wildlife, coniferous forests of pines and spruces, and the four seasons of the northern hemisphere (Boag and Schroeder, 1992). Spruce grouse are a species of special concern in Michigan.
Some hunters consider the spruce grouse a "fool hen," and say there is no sport in hunting them since they can easily be taken with a rock or rifle. Others say that its habitat is too difficult to hunt, and it is too tame and stupid to make the hunt interesting (Robinson, 1980).
Eugene Beaudoin (author), University of Arizona, Jorge Schondube (editor), University of Arizona.
Boag, D., M. Schroeder. 1992. Spruce Grouse, Falcipennis canadensis. No. 5. Pp. 1-28 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America. Philadelphia, PA: American Ornithologists' Union.
Ellison, L. 1974. Population characteritics of Alaskan spruce grouse. Journal of Wildlife Management, 38(3): 383-395.
Harju, H. 1971. Spruce grouse copulation. Condor, 73(3): 380-381.
Herzog, P., D. Boag. 1978. Dispersion and mobility in a local population of spruce grouse. Journal of Wildlife Management, 42(4): 853-865.
Johnsgard, P. 1973. Grouse and Quails of North America. Lincoln, Nebraska, USA: University of Nebraska Press.
Keppie, D. 1975. Clutch size of the spruce grouse, Canachites canadensis franklinii, in southwest Alberta. Condor, 77(1): 91-92.
Robinson, W. 1980. Fool Hen. Madison, Wisconsin 53715: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Sibley, D. 2001. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York, New York, USA: Random House, Inc..
Whitcomb, S., A. O'Connell, Jr., F. Sevello. 1996. Productivity of the spruce grouse at the southeastern limit of its range. Journal of Field Ornithology, 67(3): 422-427.